New respite center to open in downtown McAllen

Visitors to downtown McAllen walk in front of a building that will serve as the new respite center one block north of the McAllen bus station on Monday, April 22, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — After tempers flared Monday at a regularly scheduled city commission meeting, including one disgruntled citizen yelling at the police chief, commissioners narrowly approved a permit for a new immigrant respite center in downtown McAllen, which will move relief operations run by Catholic Charities back downtown after several months in a different location.

City commissioners only had until May 12, a date they self-imposed in February, to help Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and Executive Director Sister Norma Pimentel find a new immigrant respite center.  In December, Catholic Charities temporarily moved into a 16,000 square-foot former nursing home near the intersection of Second Street and Hackberry Avenue to temporarily house immigrants dropped off by federal authorities. Prior to that, Catholic Charities had used multiple downtown facilities for immigrant relief efforts.

On Monday, commissioners gave Catholic Charities until June 15 to move out of the Hackberry Avenue location and into a new facility near the corner of Austin Avenue and 15th Street near the downtown bus station. In an unusual move, the city was the applicant on the permit for this new respite center, which was a point of criticism from at least one concerned citizen on hand. However, city officials said the city has gone out for the same type of permits in the past on behalf of itself, and McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez said Catholic Charities will be the tenant of the facility.

Commissioners Aida Ramirez, Javier Villalobos and John Ingram, who is facing a re-election challenge on May 4, voted in favor of the move from Hackberry Avenue to downtown. Commissioners Omar Quintanilla and Veronica Whitacre voted in opposition. Mayor Jim Darling and Commissioner Joaquin “J.J.” Zamora were absent from Monday’s meeting.

Villalobos said this was not a matter of being for or against immigrants, but “we have to deal with it.”

“I live near there too,” Ingram said of the Hackberry location. “We’re all dealing with it.”

After the meeting, Whitacre said she voted in opposition because she wanted Catholic Charities to vacate the Hackberry facility as soon as possible, rather than giving the organization until June 15, adding “the residents, the homes in the neighborhood. It’s been very tough.”

A inside view of building the will be the new respite center on block north of the McAllen bus station on Monday, April 22, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com

Quintanilla said after the meeting he voted in opposition because he did not like that the city was the applicant on the permit, and because of concerns raised by one longtime, downtown business owner. “Now we’re going to add this,” he said.

The most vocal among the small number of people in attendance Monday opposing the measure was Timothy Wilkins, a McAllen businessman who last year ran unsuccessfully for a city commission seat. Wilkins yelled at McAllen Police Chief Victor Rodriguez.

When the vote was taken, commissioners requested Rodriguez have a larger McAllen police presence at the new downtown facility. For years, since 2014, Pimentel’s efforts to help temporarily assist immigrants were made downtown, first at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, and then, until last fall, at a small, rented space near the federal courthouse on Beaumont Avenue.

Since 2014, federal authorities have apprehended undocumented immigrants, processed them at a Border Patrol facility in South McAllen and then released all asylum-seeking immigrants to the McAllen bus station. Catholic Charities workers typically met the authorities at the bus station before taking in the immigrants for several hours, or sometimes longer.

Recently, McAllen officials requested that authorities start dropping off the immigrants in Harlingen and Brownsville, because “we felt we were way overloaded,” Rodriguez, the city manager, said at Monday’s meeting.

“The question is: What do you do?” he said. “I haven’t heard any suggestions of what to do with the people that are coming to McAllen. And that’s where the problem lies. None of us on this dais wants to continue to deal with this issue. We’ve said that since the beginning.”

The city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars since 2014 to assist Catholic Charities with the immigrants, and one citizen in opposition said that with the city being the applicant on the permit, taxpayers will bear the burden of helping the immigrants for a federal issue.

“Nobody would be happier than people here at city hall for somebody else to be responsible for this,” the city manager said. “But until they start dropping off immigrants outside McAllen, it’s our responsibility not only to keep those immigrants safe, but to keep the people that don’t want them here safe.”